## Julia West: Putting It All Together, April 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date:  April 3, 2015

In case you’re wondering if you got the math right, here’s the answer to the volume of water that flowed through the each bongo net (3/29 post): 282.88 cubic meters. Your answer might vary slightly if you rounded off to fewer decimal places.

The answer to the math problem of 4/1: you can see 162.86 square nautical miles from the bridge. That’s a big area!

Coming into Port

As I finish writing this blog, I am still on the Gunter, in port. We got in this morning, and spent a few hours unloading. All of the science gear had to come off the ship. The next plankton cruise will not be on the Gunter, as she is headed north in a couple of weeks, up the east coast to New England, where she will be employed on a marine mammal research cruise. The Gunter will be in almost continuous use until late summer; that’s the next time the crew will get a break.

Breaking everything down was interesting. Both cranes were employed, and we carried a lot of things as well. Here are some photos of our arrival and unloading (click on one to get a slide show):

When we went back to the NOAA lab to unload our gear, I got another tour of the lab, and the sorting work that is being done there. One of the main projects going on now is a project for NRDA (Natural Resources Damage Assessment) project. NRDA is a department of NOAA. This project started after the BP oil spill in 2010 to study the effects of the spill on aquatic organisms, using SEAMAP data. The samples they are analyzing are from 2010 and 2011.

I got to see some cool fish eggs and larvae from the NRDA samples, and saw some enlarged pictures from the microscope projected onto a monitor. However, I am not allowed to share them with you on this blog because of the upcoming litigation with the BP case. None of the NRDA data, photos, or anything are allowed to be shared until the court case is all over. I ventured that once it is over, there must be a lot of researchers waiting to get hold of the data, and was told that they are lining up! So if you are interested in marine science, there are definitely some research opportunities for you in the future!

Odds and Ends about the Ship

I wanted to describe a couple more interesting tidbits. I didn’t get to know the engineers, and wasn’t able to get a tour of the engine room, but I still want to thank them for getting us where we needed to go! The Gunter is a diesel electric ship. There are four generators (plus a backup) that create electricity to turn the two propellers. Usually, we are using three of them. They also generate our electricity. Not only that, but the waste heat from the generators is used to distill salt water to make fresh water. There is a brominator that is used to help purify the water, along with some chlorine I believe – neither of which I could detect in the water. There are regular tests for bromine and chlorine in the water. The salt goes out with the outflow, back into the ocean.

And where does human waste go on a ship? Surely you must be wondering! If we are at least 12 miles from shore, it is discharged into the ocean, after being treated in some way (no chemicals). Food waste is thrown overboard, if we are at least 12 miles from shore. All food waste that is thrown over is measured and recorded (by the gallon). There are rules like this for organic wastes and other types of waste, specifying how far from shore they can be released. These rules clearly state that nowhere in any ocean is plastic allowed to be dumped. The ocean has enough plastic already, thanks to us.

Our Scientists

I want to thank the wonderful science team on this trip, for patiently teaching me the ropes and putting up with my unlimited questions. It is because of their knowledge that I was able to share the science work that we are doing. Likewise, thanks to the NOAA Corps officers who welcomed me and my questions on the bridge. And Jerome and the deck crew as well.

Here’s a little bit about our scientists.

Madalyn is a native to Mississippi. She got a degree in marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, and started working with plankton with the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL), a facility with USM. Since December, she has worked in the plankton lab at NOAA, on the NRDA project described above. If she hadn’t just gotten off the ship after working 17 days straight, she would have been at one of the microscopes in the lab when I walked through. Madalyn lives in Gulfport, MS.

Chrissy also started in the same NRDA project, but is now working with the “trawl unit.” (I’ll explain that next.) During her 5 years with NOAA, she also worked for another department, the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory. Her project there also started after the BP oil spill; it involved checking samples of fish for oil contamination. They did this in a curious way: specialized “sniffers” (these are humans) with sensitive noses were hired to detect contamination in the samples! Anyway, Chrissy is from Louisiana, and has a biology degree from Louisiana State University. She’s going to be on several research cruises this year, working with Kim. Her favorite baby fish? Istiophorids (marlins), of course – “They are so cute! Look at those big eyes!”

Andy comes from Massachusetts, but now lives here in Ocean Springs, MS, with his wife. He has worked in the plankton unit for five years now, having started in plankton in college. (My question to everyone was, “So how long have you been in plankton?”) Andy has a BS in marine biology, and a MS in marine science. For his graduate work, he used SEAMAP data from the CUFES samples, studying community structure of invertebrates throughout the Gulf, and how they are affected by abiotic factors (such as temperature and salinity). This was interesting to me, because there is so much data available, and many options to analyze that data in new ways. Science doesn’t always mean you need to collect your own data! (See my note about the NRDA data above.) So now Andy specializes in invertebrate data analysis, using the data we collect. He is the FPC (Field Party Chief) for the spring and fall plankton research cruises this year. He and Pam take turns with that role.

Kim comes from Texas, and started with NOAA in 2001. She got a degree in marine fisheries, and through NOAA, was able to get her masters just a few years ago. NOAA offers nice opportunities for continuing education. Kim’s main focus is the juvenile fish – the size up from what we are working with here. They do summer groundfish surveys, which involve trawling. They catch things like commercial shrimp (that go down to the bottom at night), as well as snappers that hang out at the bottom. Kim will also be very busy at sea this year, and somehow even finds time for her husband and four young children!

Pam, our humble, kind, and intrepid leader, grew up in the Midwest, and has been “in plankton” for 23 years now! She started as a volunteer at GCRL, got hired, and spent 7 years working there before joining NOAA in 1999. I should clarify that GCRL, and several other facilities, are all part of SEAMAP, which is a cooperative project. Pam has been an FPC since 2001, as she puts it, “since the days of DOS and data sheets.” Can you imagine manually entering all your data into the computer data base?! She lives with two cats and her husband, also a federal employee with the USDA chemistry lab, in Wiggins, MS.

(Update on 4/3) – After I arrived too late at the airport this morning and missed my flight out, Pam felt so bad that she took me out to lunch and gave me a tour of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath along the coast. She was worried that I would say bad things about her on the blog post, but I still have nothing but good things to say, Pam, if you are reading this! You are awesome!

The Big Picture

I learned a bit about how all this goes together. We have the plankton surveys, which you know about. We have the groundfish surveys, which are done by trawling (dragging a net over the bottom). That catches the juveniles, but the adults tend to outswim the net.

So then we have the longline surveys to catch the adult (pelagic) fish. In a sense, we are using the same techniques commercial fishermen do, in order to study the health of the species throughout the stages of development.

When plankton research started, it was all about learning as much as possible about individual species. Now (and if you check out the NOAA FishWatch website you will understand this better), all of the data becomes important. We know that for a successful fishery, we need a healthy and diverse ecosystem. The information about non-economically important species is crucial to understanding the entire community, as well as the information about abiotic (physical) factors such as the CTD provides. I find this focus encouraging; I feel we are learning something as we try to “manage” these incredible resources. The more we understand the big picture, the more we can take care of our precious Earth.

I could get all philosophical and talk about the importance of a broad education and a global awareness in the same light, but I’ll spare you. I’ll just say that it’s really important to put together the little pieces to form the whole puzzle. It’s not that we all need to know everything. Our data collecting scientists here have their important job, but they have informed me that they don’t know all about how the results of their work have changed fishing regulations. Others down the line have their job, and they don’t know the details of how the samples are collected. However, they all have a sense of their purpose – a sense of the whole picture – even though they don’t need to know everything. Even though the deck crew and the officers who drive the ship don’t know much about plankton, but they are aware of our general purpose, and know they have a crucial part in it. It reminds me of the janitor at NASA who, when asked “what do you do for a living?” answered “I put people on the moon.”

Would I do this again? Absolutely! I learned so much! Important things like why NOAA only allows shoes with closed toes on their ships (I would have stubbed my toes a thousand times!). I learned that flying fish and mano’wars are some of the most bizarre creatures at the surface of the ocean. I learned that I’m still not so sure about the seasickness thing. There were days that were spent in a very sleepy, off-feeling mode. I need more research on that! I learned that there’s a lot going on out on our oceans that we are unaware of, like why was that oil rig that we passed the other night on fire, and has anybody reported it? And I learned that there is so very, very much more to learn. Our world is so fascinating! Never stop wondering. Thanks for following along!

## Julia West: This Is What Drives Us, April 1, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission:  Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: April 1, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Date: 3/31/2015; Time 2000; clouds 25%, cumulus and cirrus; Wind 205° (SSW), 15 knots; waves 1-2 ft; swells 1-2 ft; sea temp 23°C; air temp 23°C

Science and Technology Log

You’re not going to believe what we caught in our neuston net yesterday – a giant squid! We were able to get it on board and it was 23 feet long! Here’s a picture from after we released it:

April Fools! (sorry, couldn’t resist) The biggest squid we’ve caught are about a half inch long. Image from http://www.factzoo.com/.

Let’s talk about something just as exciting – navigation. I visit the bridge often and find it all very interesting, so I got a 30 minute crash course on navigation. We joked that with 30 minutes of training, yes, we would be crashing!

From the bridge, you can see a long way in any direction. The visible range of a human eye in good conditions is 10 miles. Because the earth is curved, we can’t see that far. There is a cool little formula to figure out how far you can see. You take the square root of your “height of eye” above sea level, and multiply that by 1.17. That gives you the nautical miles that you can see.

So the bridge is 36 feet up. “Really?” I asked Dave. He said, “Here, I’ll show you,” and took out a tape measure.

OK, 36 feet it is, to the rail. Add a couple of feet to get to eye level. 38 feet. Square root of 38 x 1.17, and there we have it: 7.2 nautical miles. That is 8.3 statute miles (the “mile” we are used to using). That’s assuming you are looking at something right at sea level – say, a giant squid at the surface. If something is sticking up from sea level, like a boat, that changes everything. And believe me, there are tables and charts to figure all that out. Last night the bridge watch saw a ship’s light that was 26 miles away! The light on our ship is at 76 feet, so they might have been able to see us as well.

Challenge Yourself

If you can see 7.2 nautical miles in any direction, what is the total area of the field of view? It’s a really amazing number!

Below are some photos of the navigation charts. They can be zoomed in or out, and the officers use the computer to chart the course. You can see us on the chart – the little green boat.

In the chart above, you’ll see that we seem to be off course. Why? Most likely because of that other ship that is headed our direction. We talk to them over the radio to get their intentions, and reroute our course accordingly.

When we get close to a station, as in the first picture above, the bridge watch team sets up a circle with a one mile radius around the location of the station. See the circle, upper center? We need to stay within that circle the whole time we are collecting our samples. With the bongos and the neuston net, the ship is moving slowly, and with the CTD the ship tries maintain a stationary position. However, wind and current can affect the position. These factors are taken into account before we start the station. The officer on the bridge plans out where to start so that we stay within the circle, and our gear that is deployed doesn’t get pushed into or under the boat. It’s really a matter of lining up vectors to figure it all out – math and physics at work. But what is physics but an extension of common sense? Here’s a close-up:

How do those other ships appear on the chart? This is through input from the AIS (Automated Information System), through which we can know all about other ships. It broadcasts their information over VHF radio waves. We know their name, purpose, size, direction, speed, etc. Using this and the radar system, we can plan which heading to take to give the one-mile distance that is required according to ship rules.

As a backup to the computer navigation system, every half hour, our coordinates are written on the (real paper) navigation chart, by hand.

There are drawers full of charts for everywhere the Gunter travels!

Below is our radar screen. There are 3 other ships on the screen right now. The radar computer tells us the other vessels’ bearing and speed, and how close they will get to us if we both maintain our course and speed.

If the radar goes down, the officers know how to plot all this on paper.

Below is Dave showing me the rudder controls. The rudder is set to correct course automatically. It has a weather adjustment knob on it. If the weather is rough (wind, waves, current), the knob can allow for more rudder correction to stay on course. So when do they touch the wheel? To make big adjustments when at station, or doing course changes.

These are the propulsion control throttles – one for each propeller. They control the propeller speed (in other words, the ship’s speed).

And below is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). It prints out any nautical distress signal that is happening anywhere in the world!

And then, of course, there is a regular computer, which is usually showing the ships stats, and is connected to the network of computers throughout the ship.

In my post of March 17, I described the gyrocompass. That is what we use to determine direction, and here is a rather non-exciting picture of this very important tool.

As you can see, we have two gyrocompasses, but since knowing our heading is probably the most important thing on the ship, there are backup plans in place. With every watch (every 4 hours), the gyro compass is aligned the magnetic compass to determine our declination from true north. Also, once per trip, the “gyro error” is calculated, using this nifty device:

The reading off of the alidade, combined with the exact time, coordinates, and some fancy math, will determine the gyro error. (Click on a picture to see full captions and full size pictures.)

You can see that we have manual backups for everything having to do with navigation. We won’t get lost, and we’ll always know where we are!

Back to Plankton!

These past two days, we have been in transit, so no sampling has been done. But here are a couple more cool micrographs of plankton that Pam shared with me.

Interesting Fish Facts

Our main fish of interest in the winter plankton sampling are the groupers. There are two main species: gag groupers and red groupers. You can learn all about them on the NOAA FishWatch Website. Groupers grow slowly and live a long time. Interestingly, some change from female to male after about seven years – they are protogynous hermaphrodites.

In the spring plankton research cruise, which goes out for all of May, the main species of interest is the Atlantic bluefin tuna. This species can reach 13 feet long and 2000 lbs, and females produce 10 million eggs a year!

The fall plankton research focuses on red snapper. These grow up to about 50 pounds and live a long time. You can see from the map of their habitat that it is right along the continental shelf where the sampling stations are.

The NOAA FishWatch website is a fantastic resource, not only to learn about the biology, but about how they are managed and the history of each fishery. I encourage you to look around. You can see that all three of these fish groups have been overfished, and because of careful management, and research such as what we are doing, the stocks are recovering – still a long way from what they were 50 years ago, but improving.

I had a good question come in: how long before the fish larvae are adults? Well, fish are interesting creatures; they are dependent on the conditions of their environment to grow. Unlike us, fish will grow throughout their life! Have you ever kept goldfish in an aquarium or goldfish bowl? They only grow an inch or two long, right? If you put them in an outdoor pond, you’ll see that they will grow much larger, about six inches! It all depends on the environment (combined with genetics).

“Adult” generally means that they are old enough to reproduce. That will vary by species, but with groupers, it is around 4 years. They spawn in the winter, and will remain larvae for much longer than other fish, because of the cooler water.

Personal Log

I’ve used up my space in this post, and didn’t even get to tell you about our scientists! I will save that for next time. For now, I want to share just a few more pictures of the ship. (Again, click on one to get a slide show.)

Terms to Learn

What is the difference between a nautical mile and a statute mile? How about a knot?

Do you know what I mean when I say “invertebrate?” It is an animal without a backbone. Shrimp and crabs, are invertebrates; we are vertebrates!

## Julia West: Science Is About the Details, March 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1600; clouds 35%, cumulus; wind 170 (S), 18 knots; waves 5-6 ft; sea temp 24°C; air temp 23°C

Science and Technology Log

We have completed our stations in the western Gulf! Now we are steaming back to the east to pick up some stations they had to skip in the last leg of the research cruise, because of bad weather. It’s going to be a rough couple of days back, with a strong south wind, hence the odd course we’re taking (dotted line). Here’s the updated map:

I had a question come up: How many types of plankton are there? Well, that depends what you call a “type.” This brings up a discussion on taxonomy and Latin (scientific) names. The scientists on board, especially the invertebrate scientists, often don’t even know the common name for an organism. Scientific names are a common language used everywhere in the world. A brief look into taxonomic categories will help explain. When we are talking about numbers, are we talking the number of families? Genera? Species? Sometimes all that is of interest are the family names, and we don’t need to get more detailed for the purposes of this research. Sometimes specific species are of interest; this is true for fish and invertebrates (shrimp and crabs) that we eat. Suffice it to say, there are many, many types of plankton!

Another question asks what the plankton do at night, without sunlight. Phytoplankton (algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates – think of them like the plants of the sea) are the organisms that need sunlight to grow, and they don’t migrate much. The larval fish are visual feeders. In a previous post I explained that they haven’t developed their lateral line system yet, so they need to see to eat. They will stay where they can see their food. Many zooplankton migrate vertically to feed during the night when it is safer, to avoid predators. There are other reasons for vertical migration, such as metabolic reasons, potential UV light damage, etc.

Vertical migration plays a really important role in nutrient cycling. Zooplankton come up and eat large amounts of food at night, and return to the depths during the day, where they defecate “fecal pellets.” These fecal pellets wouldn’t get to the deep ocean nearly as fast if they weren’t transported by migrating zooplankton. Thus, migration is a very important process in the transport of nutrients to the deep ocean. In fact, one of the most voracious plankton feeders are salps, and we just happened to catch one! Salps will sink 800 meters after feeding at night!

Now it’s time to go back into the dry lab and talk about what happens in there. I’ll start with the chlorophyll analysis. In the last post I described fluorescence as being an indicator of chlorophyll content. What exactly is fluorescence? It is the absorption and subsequent emission of light (usually of a different wavelength) by living or nonliving things. You may have heard the term phosphorescence, or better yet, seen the waves light up with a beautiful mysterious light at night. Fluorescence and phosphorescence are similar, but fluorescence happens simultaneously with the light absorption. If it happens after there is no light input (like at night), it’s called phosphorescence.

Well, it is not just phytoplankton that fluoresce – other things do also, so to get a more accurate assessment of the amount of phytoplankton, we measure the chlorophyll-a in our niskin bottle samples. Chlorophyll-a is the most abundant type of chlorophyll.

We put the samples in dark bottles. Light allows photosynthesis, and when phytoplankton (or plants) can photosynthesize, they can grow. We don’t want our samples to change after we collect them. For this same reason, we also process the samples in a dark room. I won’t be able to get pictures of the work in action, but here are some photos of where we do this.

We filter the chlorophyll out of the samples using this vacuum filter:

The filter papers are placed in test tubes with methanol, and refrigerated for 24 hours or so. Then the test tubes are put in a centrifuge to separate the chlorophyll from the filter paper.

The chlorophyll values are read in this fancy machine. Hopefully the values will be similar to those values obtained during the CTD scan. I’ll describe that next.

While the nets and CTD are being deployed and recovered, one person in the team is monitoring and controlling the whole event on the computer. I got to be this person a few times, and while you are learning, it is stressful! You don’t want to forget a step. Telling the winch operator to stop the bongos or CTD just above the bottom (and not hit bottom) is challenging, as is capturing the “chlorophyll max” by stopping the CTD at just the right place in the water column.

Here’s another micrograph of larval fish. Notice the tongue fish, the big one on the right. It is a flatfish, related to flounder. See the two eyes on one side of its head? Flatfish lie on the bottom, and have no need for an eye facing the bottom. When they are juveniles, they have an eye on each side, and one of the eyes migrates to the other side, so they have two eyes on one side! Be sure to take the challenge in the caption!

Personal Log

It’s time to introduce our intrepid leader, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt, known as CO around here. CO lives (when not aboard the Gunter) in Bellingham, WA. He got his start in boats as a kid, starting early working on crab boats. He spent 9 years with the US Coast Guard, where he had a variety of assignments. In 2001, CO transferred to NOAA, while simultaneously serving in the US Navy Reserve. CO is not a commissioned NOAA officer; he went about his training in a different way, and is one of two US Merchant Marine Officers in the NOAA fleet. He worked as XO for about seven years on various ships, and last year he became CO of the Gordon Gunter.

CO is well known on the Gunter for having strong opinions, especially about food and music. He loves being captain for fish research, but will not eat fish (nor sweet potatoes for that matter). A common theme of meal conversations is music; CO plays drums and guitar and is a self-described “music snob.” We have fun talking about various bands, new and old.

One of the most experienced and highly respected of our crew is Jerome Taylor, our Chief Boatswain (pronounced “bosun”). Jerome is the leader of the deck crew. He keeps things running smoothly. As I watch Jerome walk around in his cheerful and hardworking manner, he is always looking, always checking every little thing. Each nut and bolt, each patch of rust that needs attention – Jerome doesn’t miss a thing. He knows this ship inside and out. He is a master of safety. As he teaches the newer guys how to run the winch, his mannerism is one of mutual respect, fun and serious at the same time.

Jerome has been with NOAA for 30 years now, and on the Gunter since NOAA acquired the ship in 1998. He lives right in Pascagoula, MS. I’ve only been here less than two weeks, but I can see what a great leader he is. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerome!

Challenge Yourself!

OK, y’all (yes, I’m in the south), I have a math problem for you! Remember, in the post where I described the bongos, I showed the flowmeter, and described how the volume of water filtered can be calculated? Let’s practice. The volume of water filtered is the area of the opening x the “length” of the stream of water flowing through the bongo.

V = area x length.

Remember how to calculate the area of a circle? I’ll let you review that on your own. The diameter (not radius) of a bongo net is 60 cm. We need the area in square meters, not cm. Can you make the conversion? (Hint: convert the radius to meters before you calculate.)

Now, that flow meter is just a counter that ticks off numbers as it spins. In order to make that a usable number, we need to know how much distance each “click” is. So we have R, the rotor constant. It is .02687m.

R = .02687m

Here’s the formula:

Volume(m3) = Area(m2) x R(Fe – Fs) m

Fe = Ending flowmeter value; Fs = Starting flowmeter value

The right bongo net on one of the stations this morning had a starting flowmeter value of 031002. The ending flowmeter value was 068242.

You take it from here! What is the volume of water that went through the right bongo net this morning? If you get it right, I’ll buy you an ice cream cone next time I see you! 🙂

## Julia West: CTD and much more, March 27, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 27, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1300; clouds 10%, cirrus; wind 330° (NNW), 10 knots; air temp. 18°C; water temp. 22°C; wave height 1 ft.; swell height 2-3 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We had some high winds (25 knots) these past couple of days, and the seas got too rough to work. Last night we headed closer to shore to find calmer water, and all ops were called off. Today we are back on (a new) course! Here’s the map with our rerouted course on it:

I want to start off this post answering two really good questions that have come up. Why do we send the samples all the way to Poland, only to have the data and some specimens come right back here? Is that typical U.S. outsourcing? Well, I had heard a rumor, and now I have a definitive answer about that, and it’s rather interesting! I had no idea I’d be learning history lessons on this journey, but this post has two important events in history.

If you have studied World War II, you may have heard of the Marshall Plan, otherwise known as the European Recovery Program, where the U.S. provided grants and loans for the rebuilding of war-ravaged European countries. Poland needed to pay off their war debt to the U.S., and the U.S. had a need. Here’s what I learned:

“The ‘father of the Polish Sorting Center’, Ken Sherman, visited a number European counties participating in the Marshall Plan looking for one that would be interested in setting up a Plankton Sorting and Identification Center. Poland was the one that took him up on the offer. Actually the leader of the Province of Pomerania in western Poland saw the economic possibilities for his state and thus was born the U.S.-Poland Agreement. By the way, the agreement lasted the entire time Poland was an eastern block country under the domination of the old Soviet Union. That in itself is a remarkable tale!” Information courtesy of Joanne Lyczkowski-Shultz, renowned Plankton scientist.

There you have it. Who knew? I think debt is paid off, but we have a great working relationship with the Polish Sorting Center, and they are good at what they do, so we continue.

Another good question was, why do we sample every year? Do the samples change? The reason is because just like for so many things (think of climate change as an example), it is by monitoring long term that we get the big picture and see change, if it is occurring. I asked if the samples change over time, but the answer isn’t known among the scientists on this ship. There are other departments that analyze the data; these scientists specialize in collecting it.

Today I want to introduce the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) unit. This expensive (think \$20,000 and up) piece of equipment provides a hefty amount of data about the water column in our 200 meter sampling range. This is the last unit we deploy when we get to a station, after the neuston net comes back on board. Here’s what it looks like (the actual CTD part is on the bottom):

Here are some close-up pictures:

The niskin bottles collect samples of water at whatever depth we determine. They are lowered into the water with both ends open (see the top and bottom lids are cocked open), so water flows through them. When they get to a certain depth, we can “fire” a bottle, and an electric signal trips a little lever at the top, and the top and bottom lids spring shut. We collect samples at the surface, at the bottom of the photic zone (200 meters or the ocean floor if we can’t go that deep), and at whatever place in the water column there is the maximum amount of chlorophyll. How do we know that, you should be wondering? Well, that’s where this unit comes in. This is officially the CTD – the expensive part:

It’s hard to see because it is on a black mat. The CTD sends constant information back to our computers. Water is pumped through the unit (see the tubing?) It is recording temperature, depth (by water pressure), oxygen level, salinity, turbidity (water clarity) and fluorescence. The conductivity, or the ability to pass an electric current, gives a measure of the dissolved salts in the water, or salinity (there’s chemistry and physics for you!) Fluorescence is one indicator of chlorophyll content. If you have learned about photosynthesis, it is chlorophyll in plant leaves that absorbs the sunlight and makes a plant green. The chlorophyll, therefore, is an indicator of the phytoplankton, such as single-celled algae, that are in the water. Remember, some zooplankton (mostly the invertebrates) eat phytoplankton, and most of our baby fish eat the zooplankton, so it’s good to know what is going on at the base of the food chain.

All of these things create cool little lines on a graph as the CTD is lowered. After capturing water at the bottom, we bring it up to approximately what the chlorophyll maximum was on the way down, by watching the data feed as it comes in, and fire another bottle to grab a sample of that water. Then we do it again at the surface.

So far I’ve shared what we do on the deck – how we collect the samples. In another post I will share with you what all this stuff looks like in the lab on the computer screen. Remember I said there is constant communication between the lab, the bridge, and the deck? Well, in the lab (but not the deck) we know exactly where the bottom is, and we have to give the order to stop the descent of the CTD (or bongos). “All stop!” is the command on the radio. “All stop,” the winch operator repeats as he stops the winch. If conditions are not right, the bridge or the scientists can put off or call off a deployment. We had some strong winds and high seas these past couple of days, so working with flying nets can get dangerous. The neuston is the first to get cancelled – that’s a big net!

In the next few blog posts I’m going to share with you some micrographs (pictures taken through a microscope) of what we’ve been catching. It is awe-inspiring to see all these little specks that fill our sieves close up!

Again, here’s what they look like in a jar:

And here’s what happens when they are sorted under a microscope:

Personal Log

The other day we saw pilot whales from the bridge. It was pretty cool – they were right in front of the ship. If it was a kind of slow moving whale, we would have slowed down to avoid hitting them, but pilot whales move fast, and got out of our way easily. I didn’t get pictures – sorry! But here is somebody who was taking refuge on the deck:

Sometimes birds get blown off course, or get tired while crossing a big expanse of water. We had two big cattle egrets sitting up high on the deck a few days ago. And often songbirds land on deck, completely exhausted.

We had another fire drill and abandon ship drill; these happen once a week. This time we practiced crawling (because smoke rises) to the nearest exit with our eyes shut.

Here’s a random picture that I took. Occasionally we get plastic in our nets, and all this is recorded, of course. But if a man o’war is plankton, and this mylar balloon acts like plankton, is it plankton?

I’d like to introduce Tony VanCampen, our Electronics Technician (ET). Without him, operations would come to a stop around here. Tony is in charge of all the electronics on the ship. That includes things like the SeaCAT, the CTD, the computers, the radar, radios, GPS, meteorology gear, the internet connection….to name a few. Tony says “ET” stands for “Everything Tech.”

Tony spent 20 years in the US Navy before joining NOAA. He spent 6 years on the USS Berkeley in the Pacific, followed by a couple of years of shore duty, during which time he went back to school to learn all the new equipment that was being used on the new ships. In 1994, Tony started a new tour on the brand new Navy ship USS Cole. He was on two deployments of the USS Cole. Where were you on October 12, 2000 – were you even born yet? Tony was on the Cole, in Yemen, when two men in a normal looking small boat came up to the ship, waved, and then blew themselves up, destroying a section of the Cole and killing 17 sailors and injuring another 40+. Tony was not visibly injured, but we now know that PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a very real and serious affliction. Tony thought he was doing well until Sept. 11, 2001, when he and his wife realized he was not well at all. He credits his family and friends for seeking help and saving his life.

Why do I mention this? Because you never know, when you go to a new place, what the people you meet have been through. How important it is to remain sensitive and raise awareness of PTSD! Thanks to Tony for his willingness to share his story and thanks to those men and women who serve our country.

Lastly, here are a few pictures from our day with 5-7 foot seas. I have not been seasick – yay!

## Julia West: Neuston! March 25, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 25, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 0900; mostly sunny, clouds 25% altocumulus; wind 5 knots, 120° (ESE); air 21°C, water 21°C, wave height 1-2 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We continue to zigzag westward on our wild plankton hunt. When we are closer to shore, navigation is tricky, because we are constantly dodging oil platforms, so we can never quite do the straight lines that are drawn on the chart.

One of our Oak Meadow math teachers, Jacquelyn O’Donohoe, was wondering about math applications in the work that we are doing. The list is long! But don’t let that deter you from science – no need to fear the math! In fact, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt told me that he was never good at math, but when it came to navigating a ship, it all became more visual and much more understandable. I think it’s cool to see math and physics being applied. So, just for fun, I’ll point out the many places where math is used here on the ship – it’s in just about every part of the operations.

Today’s topic is neuston. As soon as we get the bongo nets back on board, the cable gets switched over to the neuston net. This net is a huge pipe rectangle, 1 meter x 2 meters, with a large net extending to the cod end to collect the sample. The mesh of this net is 1mm, much larger than the 0.3mm mesh of the bongo nets. So we aren’t getting the tiniest things in the neuston net, but still pretty small stuff! We lower the net to the surface, using the winch, and let it drag there for ten minutes. The goal is to have the net half in the water, so we have a swept area of 0.5 x 2 meters, or 1 square meter. (See, there’s some math for you!) That’s the goal. Sometimes with big waves, none of the net is in the water, and then all of it is, but it averages out.

Then we hose the net off thoroughly to get what is stuck to the net into the cod end.

As I mentioned before, neuston is the array of living organisms that live on or just below the surface. Some of it is not plankton, as you can also catch larger fish, but mostly, the sample overlaps with the larger plankton that we catch in the bongos. There tends to be more jellyfish in the neuston net, so we sometimes wear gloves. Pam got stung by a man o’ war on the first day while cleaning out the net!

Sometimes we end up with Sargassum in our nets. Sargassum is a type of brown “macroalgae” (seaweed) that grows in large clumps and floats on the surface. Have you ever heard of the Sargasso Sea? It is a massive collection of Sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, held in place by the North Atlantic Gyre.

Sargassum often collects in our nets. Sometimes we get gallons of Sargassum, and we have to carefully hose the organisms off of it, and throw the weeds back. We get the most interesting variety of life in the Sargassum! It supports entire communities of life that wouldn’t be there without it. If you want to know a little more about Sargassum communities, check out this website.

Here are a few examples of some of the photographable organisms we have collected in the neuston net. I’m working on getting micrographs of the really cool critters that are too small to see well with the naked eye, but they are amazing – stay tuned. All of the fish, except the flying fish, are very young; the adults will be much, much larger. (If you click on one of these, you will see a nice slide show and the full caption.)

Lastly, here is a really cool neuston sample we got – whale food!

Personal Log

Now let’s turn to the other life form on the ship – the people. There are a total of 26 people on this cruise. Everyone is really great; it’s a community of its own. First, let me introduce the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship.

The NOAA Corps, or NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States (can you name the others?). It seems that many have never heard of the NOAA Corps, so it’s worth telling you a little bit about them. Officers are trained to take leadership positions in the operation of ships and aircraft, conducting research missions such as this one and much, much more! NOAA Corps has all the career benefits of the U.S. military, without active combat. Our officers all have a degree in some kind of science, often marine science or fisheries biology.

The crew members generally keep 4 hour watches, twice a day. I really enjoy going up to the bridge to hang out with them. It’s a whole different world up there, and they have been gracious enough to explain to me (as best as I can understand it) how they navigate the ship. Conceptually, I get it pretty well, but even if I was allowed to, I wouldn’t dare touch one of the buttons and dials they have up there!

Our XO (Executive Officer) on the Gunter is LCDR Colin Little. Colin has been with NOAA for eleven years now, and his previous assignments include Sea Duty aboard Oregon II and Oscar Elton Sette, and shore assignments in Annapolis, MD and Newport, OR. His background is in fish morphology and evolution.  His wife and two sons are currently living in Chicago.

ENS Kristin Johns has been on the Gunter for almost a year. She joined NOAA after getting a biology degree at Rutgers. She is currently being trained to be the next Navigation Officer. Kristin is the safety officer, as well as the MPIC (Medical Person in Charge). Kristin is the one who suggested I use the word “thalassophilia” as the word of the day – something she clearly suffers from!

Our Operations Officer (OPS) is LT Marc Weekley. Marc is in charge of organizing the logistics, and coordinating between the scientists and the crew. He’s been with NOAA for ten years (on the Gunter for two years), and has had some interesting land-based as well as offshore posts, including a year at the South Pole Station (yes, Antarctica) doing clean air and ozone monitoring.

ENS Melissa Mathes is newest officer with NOAA, but spent 6 years in the Army Reserves in college, and then 6 years of active duty with the Navy. Melissa loves archery and motorcycles, and she has been rumored to occasionally dance while on watch.

ENS (which stands for Ensign, by the way) David Wang, originally from New York City, is our Navigation Officer (NAV). He’s been with NOAA for two years. His job, as he puts it, is “getting us where we gotta go, safely.” He is the one who charts our course, or oversees the other Junior Officers as they do it. Dave used to be a commercial fisherman, and when he’s not on duty, those are his fishing lines extending out from the back deck. He’s also an avid cyclist and ultimate Frisbee player.

ENS Peter Gleichauf has been on the Gunter since November, but finished his training over a year ago. He is also an aviator, musician, and avid outdoors person. In fact, for all of the officers, health, fitness, and active lifestyle is a priority. Pete is in charge of environmental compliance on the ship.

Term of the Day: USS Cole – you can look this one up. Next blog post I will explain what in the world it has to do with a plankton research cruise. I promise it will all make sense!

## Julia West: Bongos! March 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1700; clouds 100%, stratus; wind 325° (NNW), 9 knots; air temperature 22°C, sea temperature 25°C

Science and Technology Log

Here’s what we have covered as of Sunday evening, 3/22. I’m getting quite the tour of the Gulf! Notice we are going back and forth across the shelf break (the edge of the continental shelf), as that is our area of interest.

Again, thanks to all of you who are reading and asking questions. One recent question had to do with whether we are bringing specimens back. So let me explain what we do with them. Most plankton are so small that you see them best through a microscope. So the “specimens” that we are bringing back are all in jars – thousands of organisms per jar! Every time we collect samples, we get at least three jars – two from the bongo nets and one (or more) from the neuston net. That’s not including the CUFES samples described earlier, which are only big enough for a tiny bottle. Here are some pictures:

These samples get brought back to shore for analysis in the NOAA lab. Oddly, many of the samples get sent to Poland to be analyzed! Why Poland, you ask? Well, for a few decades we have had a cooperative agreement with the Polish sorting and identification center. They remove the fish and eggs from all samples, as well as select invertebrates. These specimens and the data get sent back to US for analysis. We double check some of the IDs, and plug the data into models. (If you are a biology student, this is an example of how models get used!) The information then goes to fisheries managers to use to help form fishing regulations. This division of NOAA is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages stocks of fish populations.

NOAA has been doing spring and fall plankton sampling for 30 years now. Winter sampling is newer; it started in 2007. SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) is cooperative agreement between the Gulf states, federal (NOAA), and university programs. The samples from the states and universities get sent to Poland with our samples. The the timing of the surveys is to target specific species when they are spawning. This winter survey is targeting grouper, tilefish, and other winter spawning species. The other surveys target bluefin tuna, red drum, red snapper, and mackerels, which spawn at other times of the year. The invertebrate data is used to build an understanding of invertebrate community structure throughout the Gulf.

In science, research is cumulative. We know, from past research, what the mortality rate of some fish species is. So if we get a fish larva or fry that is a certain size, we can estimate the percentage of that size larvae that will reach adulthood, and back calculate to see how much mortality has already happened to get fish of that size. All this allows us to get a peek into the size of adult population.

The first piece of equipment that we use when we get to each station is the bongo nets. You can see how they got their name!

Here are the bongos ready to be deployed:

The flow meter is inside each bongo net, near the top. We read the numbers on it before the net goes out, and after it comes back. Using this information – the rate of flow, together with the area of the opening, we can calculate the volume of water filtered. The SeaCAT is a nifty unit that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth. Since we have a much fancier unit to measure these factors, we use this primarily for depth, so we know when we are getting to 200 meters (or the bottom, whichever comes first). We go to 200 meters because that is the lowest effective light penetration. Phytoplankton need light, and zooplankton need phytoplankton! What’s more, larval fish have not yet developed their lateral line (the organ that many fish use to sense vibrations in the water around them), so they feed visually. Even if they want to eat something below the photic zone, they wouldn’t be able to “see” it yet.

I, of course, am full of questions, and knowing that I’m supposed to identify every acronym I write, I asked what SeaCAT stands for. The unit is made by a company called SBE (Sea Bird Enterprises), so is the CAT just a fun name that they came up with? Nobody knew the answer! But everyone was curious, and Tony and Steve (both electronics technicians) did some emailing and got the answer straight from SBE. CAT stands for “Conductivity And Temperature” (seems we could have figured that out). And the Sea? Could be for Seabird, Seattle, or just the plain ol’ sea!

Once we get the nets in the water, the crane operator monitors the speed that it is lowered. Our job is to communicate the “wire angle” constantly to the bridge and the lab. Here’s how this is done:

The angle of the cable is important because it allows the nets to sweep the desired amount of water as they are pulled up. If the wire angle is too high (above 55°), the crew on the bridge slows the ship down just a bit. The perfect angle is 45°. Many other factors can mess this up, most notably current. The ship has to be facing the right direction, for example, so the current isn’t coming toward the ship (have you ever been fishing and had your line swept under the boat?). It’s tricky business, requiring constant communication between bridge, lab, and deck! Oh, and by the way, the cable is a “smart wire,” meaning it has electrical flow through it, which is how the depth gets communicated to the computers. Fascinating technology, both on the micro and macro scale!

Once we pull in the bongos, we hose them off very thoroughly, to get any of the little plankton that are stuck to the net. They are all funneled into the codend, which is a PVC cylinder. From there, we dump the sample into a sieve, and transfer it into a jar, and get read to do it again in 3 hours or so.

Did I tell you that sampling goes on 24/7? Perhaps you figured that out when you heard the shift times. It costs a lot to run a ship; operations continue whether it’s night or day.

Personal Log

Now, to keep people happy when they are living in close quarters, far from home, and working strange shifts, what’s the most important thing of all? FOOD! The Gunter is well known among NOAA circles for having fantastic food for people of all diet types and adding ethnic flavor to her meals. The person responsible for our good and abundant food is Margaret, our Chief Steward. She has worked for NOAA for ten years, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. Her husband is now retired from the Coast Guard, so they moved around a lot. Margaret worked for the Coast Guard for four years, then went back to cooking school, and had various other jobs before signing on with NOAA. She has a few years left before she retires, and when she does, what will she do? She wants to do subsistence farming! This is right up my alley – Margaret and I have a lot to talk about! Not to mention the fact that Margaret makes her own juices, some amazing homemade hummus, AND dries her own fruit (dried cherries -yum!).

Margaret also has a helper, Mike, who was reluctant to have his picture taken. He’s not the usual assistant steward, but sure seems highly capable! It always sounds like a lot of fun is being had in the galley.

That’s it for this post – I’m getting hungry. Time to eat!

Challenge Yourself

What executive branch of the U.S. government does NOAA belong to? Is it the same branch that oversees our national parks? How about our national forests?

Did You Know?

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (NOAA), and more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells (Assoc. Press, 2010)

## Julia West: It’s the Small Things in Life… March 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 20, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge, 0800, 3/20/15
Temperature: 25.5°C (78°F)
Wind direction: 90° (E)
Wind speed: 6 knots
Sky condition: cumulus (cu), 15% cloud cover

First:

I’m really excited to see everyone commenting and asking questions, and I hope I do a good job answering them. If you don’t get your answer right away, remember that I am learning too! I will be answering lots of them in the blog posts, and others in the comments, and hopefully I’ll get to most or all of them! The internet out here is marginal at best, so when the satellite connection is good, I try to run with it. That’s why there might be gaps in our communication.

Science and Technology Log

If you haven’t guessed by now, there are several methods of sampling plankton. Each one is used several times a day, when we get to one of the sampling stations. Since the whole point of these research cruises are… well… doing research, it is fascinating to see the communication between the scientists and the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship. At the beginning of the cruise, Pam, the FPC (Field Party Chief, or chief scientist), discussed the stations we need to get to with LT Marc Weekley, the operations officer (OPS), and ENS Dave Wang, the navigations officer (NAV). Together they made a plan. Some of the decision is based on weather; for example, in the first leg of the cruise, which ended just before I got here, there was bad weather coming in, so they decided to work south, to skirt most of the weather coming from the northwest, and then work back northward. Here is a map of the entire sampling area:

On our leg, we are doing a little zigzagging south, and then will be zigzagging west all the way toward Texas. There is constant communication between the officers on the bridge, the scientists in the lab, and the deck crew, especially as we get toward the sampling station. There is a navigation chart on the monitor on the bridge, and a video feed of the chart to the lab and every TV monitor on the ship, so everyone knows exactly where we are and how close we are to the next station. There are also closed circuit video cameras in various places around the boat that can be viewed on the lab and bridge monitors. The scientists and crew can see everything that is going on as equipment gets deployed over the side. The bridge has to give the OK for anything to be deployed or recovered, even a plankton net.

There’s also a camera on the bow of the boat, looking down at the water. With that camera you can sometimes see dolphins “bow surfing.” The bow of the boat pushes a wave ahead of it, something you’ve probably seen if you’ve been in any boat with a motor. Imagine a permanent, amazing surfing wave – one that you can ride for miles! If you fall off the wave, just a few tail strokes and you’re back on it. That’s life as a dolphin!

OK, now back to plankton:

Today I want to introduce CUFES, or “Continuous Underwater Fish Egg Sampler.” This unit is pumping in seawater continuously, agitating it to funnel any plankton and fish eggs into the collecting device. This device was first used on the west coast, where the fish eggs are larger. Here in the Gulf, eggs are very, very small, and not the priority, so the CUFES is used to collect whatever plankton are pulled into it. The intake is 3 meters below the surface.

The water is agitated, and then funneled into a sieve. The water is piped right back into the ocean, and the plankton collect on the sieve. Every 30 minutes (yes, they have a timer), the sieve is removed, and the sample is rinsed and transferred to a small bottle. The bottle is filled with ethanol as a preservative. This sampling method provides a continuous record of plankton, in contrast to the isolated stations that are used for the rest of the sampling, which are about 30 miles apart. In addition, the ship has another device that continuously records temperature and salinity. This unit is called the……..wait for it……. thermosalinograph! Every 30 minutes, when the CUFES sample is taken, the minimum, maximum, and average temperature and salinity for that half hour gets imported right into the CUFES “event” (the computer data sheet). Also recorded are the start and end positions of the ship, as well as the water depth. There is no shortage of data, and this is just one of the plankton sampling methods!

Personal Log

Now that I’ve been on the ship for 3 days, life is falling into a routine. The scientists work 12 hour shifts – noon to midnight, and midnight to noon. There are two scientists on each shift, and Pam works long days overseeing both shifts. Chrissy, pictured above, is one of the midnight-noon workers. I wasn’t required to stand a particular shift; I float between both shifts as well, so I can work with everyone and get to know them all. Also, this way I don’t have to ask the same questions over and over again to the same people – I can spread out my repetition and drive them all less crazy! I’m kidding, because they are all incredibly patient. One thing about scientists is that they invite questions. Science is all about questions. And you can bet I’ve asked a few that had them scratching their head a bit, but we always find the answers!

More about the ship – you can find out a lot on the Gordon Gunter’s web page. That’s where I go to find out when meal times are! The ship is 224′ long. My stateroom is on the port side of the 01 deck (the first deck with windows that you can walk around, if you’re looking at the picture), toward the forward end. Above that is the 02 deck, which has a smaller interior. The 02 deck is where the life rafts are kept. Above that is the bridge deck, smaller still, but fun to be up there at the control center of the ship’s world! And the very top is the fly bridge – a cool place to hang out and see far and wide. Below the 01 deck is the main deck (also known as 1 deck), where the galley (mess deck) and lounges are. Below that is the 2 deck, where the engine and generators are, as well as the laundry room and a gym. This is the heart of the ship.

One last picture (next time I’ll have more pics) – we had our first fire and abandon ship drills. These are extremely important, and everyone takes them seriously. I forgot to bring my camera to the fire drill, but I’ll try to remember next time. I had to put on my “gumby” suit, which is the survival suit we all need if we have to abandon ship. It’s an incredibly thick neoprene dry suit, and I felt rather silly in it, but it’s serious business! Cute, don’t you think?

Did You Know?

In the Gulf of Mexico, the continental shelf extends about 60-100 miles from shore. The average depth of the Gulf is 1615 meters, with a maximum of about 4000 meters.

Challenge yourself: Where is the “Sigsbee Deep?” Are we going there?

New Term for the Day

Thalassophilia – love of the sea!

## Julia West: In Port in Pascagoula, MS, March 17, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 17, 2015

Personal Log

I made it! A smooth flight down to Mississippi (which is a new state for me – I’ve never been here). I arrived to sunshine and warm temperatures – OK, downright hot to me, but I’ll get used to it quickly I’m sure. Pamela Bond, the chief scientist on this cruise, met me at the airport and brought me out to the Gordon Gunter. I quickly learned that it is not only Pam who is super nice and welcoming, but the entire crew. I’ll be introducing them more in future posts.

The ship is not at the usual port near the NOAA lab, but at the former naval station, on an island at the mouth of the Pascagoula River. This yard has multiple uses now, as you can see from the pictures below. So not only is the Gunter here, but it has the company of a Coast Guard vessel, and both are dwarfed by a massive oil rig. On the other side of the pier (not pictured) is a USGS vessel and others. There’s a lot going on here!

Across the way is Pascagoula’s largest employer, and Mississippi’s largest manufacturing employer, Ingalls Shipbuilding, with 11,000 employees right here in Pascagoula! I can see ships in various stages of construction.

I have learned a lot about this area in the one day here at port. Two major events have happened here in recent years – Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP oil spill (2010). Both events simply ravaged this area. Everywhere we have been in the last day – the naval station, the NOAA lab, the highway – was under several feet of water during Katrina. You’ve seen the pictures. To hear about it from the folks here is profound. The BP oil spill (also known as Deepwater Horizon oil spill), another devastating event, changed the whole NOAA season (as it did for the fishermen and just about everyone else here). All the NOAA ships on the east coast, and one from the west coast, had to cancel their season’s research and congregate down here to be involved as needed, looking for oil, looking for marine mammals, etc. Today we visited the NOAA lab, where several employees are analyzing plankton samples taken from the affected waters. This is five years later, and still very relevant and ongoing data collection! (sorry, forgot to bring my camera to the lab, but I got to check out lots of plankton under the microscope).

Backing up now, to my arrival: Pam showed me to my room – I’m surprised that I have my own room! It has a refrigerator, closet, desk, comfy chair, my very own sink, and a shared bathroom with the room next door. And it has a TV – I barely know how to use a TV!

And then Tony, the ET (electronics technician) gave me a tour of the boat. Since then, I have been wandering around, sometimes in circles, trying to figure out the layout. I can tell right away that the food is going to be amazing.

My head is already spinning with some of the details about the equipment and technology. Pam was not sure if we would be launching on time – everything has to be just perfect for a research cruise to start, and if there are any issues, we don’t go. There were two repairs that needed to be made since the ship came to port just two days ago: one had to do with the unit that makes our water, by distilling seawater (very important!), and the other had to do with a malfunctioning gyro, or gyrocompass, needed for navigation (also important!). I wanted to know more about how a gyrocompass works, so I first looked it up on Wikipedia, and then talked to Dave Wang, the NAV (navigations officer). It’s so fascinating – a compass that points true north partly by using the rotation of the Earth. The good news is that both of the repairs are done and we will be launching on time!

I just want to share one bit info about a simple piece of equipment on the aft deck. It’s a water tank. I asked Tony what it’s for, when we have the technology to make fresh water. Well, after the oil spill, getting fresh water was a problem, so the tank was added. It was decided that it was convenient to have after it was no longer needed, and is now used for things that need a freshwater wash.

I am wrapping up this blog post now, a day after I started it. I’ve had my safety and ship protocol briefing, and we are underway. We’ve passed the barrier islands, and the ship is starting to rock a bit. Here we go! We have another 5 hours or so to go to get to our first sampling station, so the science work will start tonight. One final photo – to get out of the tight spot we were docked in, a tugboat was necessary:

Word of the Day (time to start learning the terminology):

Neuston – the organisms that are found on the very top of the water, in the surface film. Contrast that with plankton, which can be said to be found within the water, not always right at the surface.

## Julia West: Getting Ready to Head South to the Gulf of Mexico! March 11, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
(Almost!) Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 11, 2015

Introduction

Hello from the frozen north! From the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and from almost as cold southern Vermont, I welcome you to this blog of my new adventure. My name is Julia West, and in just a few short days I will be embarking on a new journey, leaving this place where the average temperature last month was a cozy 5°F (-15°C) and joining the crew and scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be more like 60°F (15°C).

The Gordon Gunter

First of all, if you’re the type who asks as many questions as I do (and I hope you are – questions are good!), you might be wondering why am I saying hello from two places, both NY and VT. Well, Oak Meadow School, “where” I teach, is in Brattleboro, VT. I live in NY, 3 hours away. And the students? They are everywhere! But of course if you are an Oak Meadow student, you already know all this. So I will say I am from both places, and I represent homeschooled students throughout the world, who will hopefully be tuning into this blog and adding comments. I invite everyone reading this to ask questions and share comments – I don’t need to know who you are, but hope you will introduce yourself.

I teach high school science, mostly biology and environmental science, and health, to homeschooled students through our distance learning program. I have been working for Oak Meadow for 22 years now. I am always looking for ways to bring our students together in our global community, and what better way to do that but to go out into the one “world ocean” that we all share. I’m passionate about science and scientific research, and very excited to share with you all that I learn. And believe me, I have much to learn. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real field work, and the technology has changed so much that I am getting into student mode!

I would have to say I’m a landlubber who loves oceans. I’m more comfortable in the mountains where I can range far and wide, yet the unknown has a strong pull on me – I love new challenges. Living in a small floating space will be my first entry into a whole new world, which I hope will lead to more sailing experiences in the future. I don’t even know yet if I get seasick! I grew up with small boats on the many lakes we have here; I’ve taken plenty of ferries in various oceans, but I’ve never spent real time at sea. I love the outdoors – I am an avid cross-country skier, biker, hiker, and whitewater raft guide.

I don’t know the Gulf of Mexico; I have spent very little time in the south. We all hear about the Gulf in the news, and often not in a good way: hurricanes, BP oil spill, the dead zone…. I teach about these topics. I’m excited to get a firsthand perspective on the important research being done there. More on that soon, but first, I have to share this picture of some of the cool NOAA goodies that came in the mail last week! I have to admit – I really like the NOAA logo.

When most people think about NOAA, they are probably thinking about the National Weather Service forecast. NOAA is so much more! I have used the website as an incredible resource on meteorology, anything related to the oceans or atmosphere, fisheries, and climate science. As a science geek, I just have fun clicking around the NOAA website, checking it all out. It is NOAA scientists who map the ocean floor, providing safe passage for shipping. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service takes the lead in stewardship of the marine ecosystems in the U.S. And if you want the latest in climate monitoring and predictions, look to NOAA.

I also have learned a little bit about NOAA through my daughter, Joy. She was a Hollings scholar in college, which opened the door to employment with NOAA in Woods Hole, MA. Now a PhD candidate in marine biology, she still does some research on NOAA ships. Here is a picture of Joy on the R/V Auk a few years ago. The yellow creature is called a marine autonomous recording unit (MARU), otherwise known as a pop-up. It is deployed into waters of the continental shelf to record the sounds of marine mammals. These units are anchored to the bottom, and in six months, when it is time to retrieve them, an acoustic signal triggers the cable to release, and the unit “pops up” to the surface, where it is found and picked up.

It was partly through Joy that I heard about the Teacher at Sea program, and I also have to credit her for reviving my interest in field science. So here I am!

What I Will Be Doing

What is a winter plankton survey anyway? I will be sharing lots of details about that in the next few weeks, as I learn. The fish resources in the Gulf (or anywhere) are important to humans, and it is through constant monitoring that we keep up on the status and health of fish populations. This data informs fishing regulations. The status of non-fishery species (those not used by humans) is equally important, as you know, because all species are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

We will be sampling fish eggs, larvae, and juveniles, as well as their zooplankton predators and prey, to determine their abundance and distribution. We will be measuring physical properties of their habitat, as well as primary productivity. That’s about as far as I will go right now, at the risk of giving you incorrect information! I’ll be sharing details about the tools and methods used in upcoming blog posts.

Meanwhile, this map below shows the sampling locations – if you need me, you can look for me in one of these spots!

New? Terms

If you can’t remember what plankton is, it’s time to look it up! How about primary productivity? Feel free to share your definitions by leaving a comment.